Creating Space for Ordinary Life
It’s 7 pm — golden hour at Washington-Jefferson Park in Eugene, Oregon. A group of three is cooking dinner on a charcoal grill. Across the street that splits the park into two sections, two others sit in chairs outside a tent, sharing a cigarette and talking quietly. Another person is reading alone, feet sticking out of a zippered entrance next to a crate of belongings — not tidy, but contained.
These are such ordinary moments that I feel intrusive witnessing them as I walk through the park, which has recently become home to what appears to be about 100 of Eugene’s houseless residents. Making spaces for daily instances of cooking, chatting, reading — mundane activities that those of us who live indoors may easily take for granted — is crucial to fully meeting the needs of any population. Recovery from the day and respite from stress depend on having reliable places in which to root a routine. In Eugene, as in many cities where the unhoused population has expanded precipitously in recent years, this is not a given.
To look at a map of Washington-Jefferson Park is to see a large rectangle fixed in place by straight lines – two vertical, three horizontal – representing streets that bound and bisect the greenspace, a portion of which is also overlayed by the I-105 bridge. In 2019, the empty rectangle on the map was not far from on-the-ground reality. A visitor then would have seen flat land, short grass, a sparse presence of people or wildlife. The park’s most distinguishing characteristic was the industrial noise surrounding it — the crashing grind of the grain mill to the east, the clanging trains passing to the north, the rush of nearby cars, and the booming freeway above. Then 2020 happened: pandemic, lockdown, protests, wildfires. As my daily geography shrank, I marked the passage of time by observing an evolution in Washington-Jefferson Park.
Eugene is a city of only 172,622 residents, with one of the highest per-capita populations of individuals experiencing houselessness in the United States.1U.S. Census Bureau, “Population Estimates, July 1, 2019”; Mohamed Hassan Awad, “3 Innovations Helping the Homeless in Eugene, Oregon,” The Conversation (April 17, 2020). What should be done about this? How did it happen? Such questions are too large to grapple with here. My focus, rather, is on the simple fact that everyone deserves the opportunity to establish the daily patterns necessary for a stable life. Routine, relationships, rest, all require a location — a somewhere in which the minute habits that support stability and calm, both within and between people, can settle and recur. My desire here is simply to describe such moments and habits as I’ve witnessed them in Washington-Jefferson Park. Yet even this seemingly simple task carries complex tensions. I want to acknowledge the critical need to protect these improvisational home spaces, without oversimplifying the reasons for, or romanticizing the realities of, life outside.
The city has attempted to meet its housing crisis by providing shelters, rest stops, and micro-housing communities, as well as by passing laws allowing for temporary overnight camping.2Providing for the Unhoused. A Review of Transitional Housing Strategies in Eugene, report prepared by Community Planning Workshop, University of Oregon (October, 2015). Such measures have had limited effect, however, especially given physical distancing requirements.3Joanna Mann, Jennah Pendleton, Addie Peterson, and Silas Sloan. “Swept Away,” Eugene Weekly (June 17 2021). Meanwhile, the criminalization of homelessness through park bans, surveillance, and sweeps continues to prevent people from finding consistent places to stay. Eugene’s apparent permissiveness in allowing unhoused folks to live in public spaces without providing services is far less than a bare minimum response to deep-rooted problems.
As COVID-19 took hold, moreover, the numbers of people experiencing houselessness in Eugene increased.4Rebecca Ellis, “Federal analysis shows Oregon’s homeless population in decline prior to pandemic,” KLCC (March 19, 2021). Shelter-in-place recommendations implied that local police would not be sweeping houseless residents from their camps during the pandemic, although these allowances define permitted camping locations in ways that are confusing.5Taylor Perse, “Criminalized In a Pandemic,” Eugene Weekly (February 4, 2021). And, despite the efforts of local activists, since the pandemic began, the incidences of sweeps have increased by 40 percent in parks and parking lots, and along sidewalks throughout the city.6Mann, et al., “Swept Away.” Police rip people from their belongings, shelters, and communities. What’s left behind is public space that often remains underused and neglected.
I’ve walked daily through Washington-Jefferson Park for a year-and-a-half now. My route is along 5th Avenue, the through-street that divides the greenspace. In May 2020, I noticed a few tents. These multiplied over the course of a few days — then they were gone. A few weeks later, some were back. Another multiplication, and another sudden disappearance. This pattern has been reflected in areas across the city, as communities take form only to be swept away by a city government that continuously contradicts itself in promises and policies versus actions.
It is now autumn 2021. While many COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, my routine remains. In January, Washington-Jefferson Park was included on a short list of city parks permitting long-term temporary camping, and the number of tents grew again.7“Homelessness: City Guidelines on Camping during COVID,” Jefferson Westside Neighbors (January 21, 2021). The neighborhood is still permeated by the sounds of grain-mill production, and reverberation of tires against asphalt. But now, if I listen closely, sounds of human life again break through the noise.
Coughing from inside a tent. Guitar strings. Someone calls through the door of an occupied port-a-potty installed by the city: “Are you gonna clean up the stuff you left outside?”8In May, someone had handwritten on the side of the port-a-potty: “Please keep the bathrooms clean so that we can keep them.”City signage outlines rules for maintaining park cleanliness, with the threat that “failure to follow site rules could result in being asked to leave.” It’s clear by the pattern of clustered and distanced tents, and the interactions between campers, that relationships have developed.
Sometimes there are Easy-Up awnings on either side of the street, where community organizations offer services like medical care and water distribution. Along the parking strip on 5th Avenue, locals pull in to drop off food and clothing. Meanwhile, a police surveillance camera attached to a metal arm on a trailer platform looms high above the park. Sometimes, maintenance workers clean while talking to campers. On the worst days, there are cops. In early August, a community activist group called Stop the Sweeps reported that Eugene police forcibly removed someone from the site, eventually releasing her after “…admitting that they had no legal standing to arrest her.”9Stop the Sweeps Eugene Instagram (August 5, 2021).
Each moment in this place is a living archive. The concrete pillars holding up I-105 with “NO CAMPING” stenciled in black represent a glimpse into the recent past, and also a warning glance toward a potential future where the park is empty again. There is no question that an overhaul of larger systems is urgent. Meanwhile, let’s ask, What else? What pushes beyond the basics? What makes a life? Perhaps the subtle intricacies of these ordinary moments can serve as guiding forces, lines of sight toward the simple yet nuanced elements that allow people to live safe and social lives. A lawn flamingo outside a tent indicates more than shelter. However provisional, it is a marker of home.
- U.S. Census Bureau, “Population Estimates, July 1, 2019”; Mohamed Hassan Awad, “3 Innovations Helping the Homeless in Eugene, Oregon,” The Conversation (April 17, 2020).
- Providing for the Unhoused. A Review of Transitional Housing Strategies in Eugene, report prepared by Community Planning Workshop, University of Oregon (October, 2015).
- Joanna Mann, Jennah Pendleton, Addie Peterson, and Silas Sloan. “Swept Away,” Eugene Weekly (June 17 2021).
- Rebecca Ellis, “Federal analysis shows Oregon’s homeless population in decline prior to pandemic,” KLCC (March 19, 2021).
- Taylor Perse, “Criminalized In a Pandemic,” Eugene Weekly (February 4, 2021).
- Mann, et al., “Swept Away.”
- “Homelessness: City Guidelines on Camping during COVID,” Jefferson Westside Neighbors (January 21, 2021).
- In May, someone had handwritten on the side of the port-a-potty: “Please keep the bathrooms clean so that we can keep them.”
- Stop the Sweeps Eugene Instagram (August 5, 2021).